Posts Tagged game design

Review: Minecraft

Minecraft might be my new obsession.  Due to Ken’s blog and glowing review of it, I ended up watching a couple of YouTube videos of a guy starting out and I was convinced to download and purchase it.  Turns out, it’s extremely addictive, even to a gamer like me, who generally dislikes (1) 1st person shooters, (2) crafting in general in games, and (3) open sandbox worlds.  Kind of odd, but I have been self-examining while playing, and I think I know why I enjoy it so much – it’s a kind of game design game, in that you generate your goals and the style of gameplay you want as you play.  It’s kind of similar to how I imagine Dwarf Fortress plays out, which many of my friends have played but which was entirely uninteresting to me.

In Minecraft, you start in a randomly generated landscape with nothing.  You can go “mine” wood from a tree, and then “craft” it into wooden planks.  Two planks become sticks, and four planks a workbench.  The workbench gives more space to craft, so you can then make larger objects like a wooden pick – which is betting at mining, and so can get you stone.  Stone can make you furnace.  Eventually you can find other resources, like coal (torches), sand (glass), iron (steel) and even diamond and this crazy mystical substance “red stone” (which can power things at a distance, a la electricity).  Add to this the fact that the world autogenerates around you in an almost infinite fashion, and that there’s a survival component (at night, the zombies cometh), and you have a recipe for a very interesting game with only a small number of core mechanics.

One major drawback of Minecraft is it is extremely simple, pixelated graphics, which means it is not super compelling visually.  But honestly, it ends up being both endearing and undistracting, letting the mechanics shine through.  If you enjoy sandbox type games, or building (Sim-style) games, or quest-adventure games, or you are interested in exploring a world populated only by you and uniquely formed for you, Minecraft is worth a try.

Overall: A-
Mining to Crafting Ratio: 10:1 or greater, depending on how much of a “quester” you want to be
Variety of Speckles in Stone: B-

p.s. My current house has a lava floe into a lake outside, and I am planning on hollowing out the mountain I built it in to make the Mines of Moria.  Hopefully I won’t spend every waking moment on it!

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Review: Plants vs. Zombies

So, here’s a dirty secret: I had not played Plants vs. Zombies until very recently, when Bill couldn’t stop talking my ear off about it.  But, surprise surprise, it is in fact a PopCap game and extremely good!  I just completed Adventure Mode plus a few of the “survival” levels (which let you use some of the stuff you acquire late in the game to good effect), and I wanted to talk about my impressions.  For reference, I love love love Peggle, I enjoy Bejeweled but not overmuch, and I haven’t played other PopCap games.  I also have historically not enjoyed Tower Defense games, probably because they tend to (a) lack polish, and (b) take a bit to get into.

PvZ immediately solves both of these problems because it is amazingly polished (like any PopCap game) and it doesn’t waste anytime getting you into the meat of the game.  PvZ has two major components that I want to talk about – its sunflower system and its progression of content.  The sunflower is the game’s mana system, in that your ability to construct “towers” is limited by your sun currency, and that currency is generated by sunflowers.  I think this is both a beautiful design feature, and also a minor design flaw.  Because the space you build in (your lawn) is limited, the arrangement and number of sunflowers has strategic value, and I like that.  In addition, because sunflowers produce sun at an approximate rate, that means you build as you play, which is an excellent way to keep the game moving and energetic, and I love that about it.  On the other hand, it’s a flaw because I have found every one of my games starts the same way – I make a bunch of sunflowers while defending with temporary defensive structures.  This repetitiveness wore me down and is a major contributor to why I am not planning on playing much more past the “campaign track.”  (It also has another effect which I’ll talk about below.)  Sunflowers are also super adorable, so major plus there too.

The progression of content in PvZ is great – you receive new plants as you progress (they are not “money-limited,” although a few “post-game content” items are).  I found this kept me interested, and the inclusion of levels that leverage the strengths of the new plant immediately after you receive them as kind of a running tutorial is an excellent system for teaching.  I did find, however, that due to the build order constraints sunflowers place on me, I ended up using a lot of the same plants over and over again.  Once again, the repetitiveness is frustrating and I didn’t feel the variation in level makeup (pool vs. fog vs. roof etc.) was sufficient to make me feel like I was diversifying.

So, overall, it’s clearly an excellent game, and I should have played it sooner!  PopCap never fails to deliver an excellent package, and the very fact that I have this much to say about it is a testament to the game’s subtle depth and overall fun factor.  I recommend it, probably over other Tower Defense games (unless that’s your cup of tea specifically), but not over other casual games generally.

Overall: A-
Polish, Flavor, etc.: A
Strategy: B-
Strategy for a Casual Game: A-

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Matt Place

When I was still nervous about talking to and hanging out with people in Magic R&D (I didn’t know them well, and I was still outside-looking-in), Matt took the first huge step for me: he got me onto his card set team – “Scissors” development, of the Rock-Paper-Scissors codenamed block – to try out my skills at R&D. Although I had a passion for game design, I know I certainly wouldn’t be in the position I have now if it weren’t for the kickstart Matt got for me. Not only was that team a fun group of people, but I learned a ton from Matt and the rest of the team about how to make Magic, and further integrated myself into R&D culture.

Matt is not afraid to state his opinion, which can be both abrasive and illuminating. Since he is very smart, it pays to listen, but because he is very vocal about how he feels, it can sometimes be painful to hear. Or, at least, it was for me when I was still in a very passive, learning, listening, understanding mode. His example led me to be more assertive on game design conversations, which is all positive in my opinion. Matt’s also got a great sense of humor, and I know humor is an important part of my relationships, so we’ve bonded over that too.

We hung out a bit on my one and only trip so far to Japan, in Kyoto, walking around outside the site when we both had some free time, looking for an ATM. Basically, I have a hard time remembering any *bad* times with Matt Place. Matt left Wizards and soon after left the Seattle area to work in other game design, which is a shame for me and us at Wizards, but obviously amazing for them.

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Game Universes: The Why of Gaming

For my last post of Game Design month, I wanted to think through my reasons for enjoying gaming so much.  I have skipped social commitments to play games, I sometimes interact with friends solely through the lens of a game during a meetup, and I (obviously) enjoy thinking about and designing games.  But why?

Games are an escape from the real world, yes, but I don’t think that’s the reason.  More likely, the allure comes from the fact that each game can be a world unto itself.  As a scientist, I understand fundamentally that although I may learn a lot about how the universe works, I will never understand enough on my own to make sense of most of the universe.  In the universe of a game, however, the rules are much more limited and understandable, and that’s enjoyable in and of itself.

But the real draw comes because even very very simple games – those with a handful of easily understood rules – have emergent behaviors, especially when many human players are involved.  At the same time it promises solvability due to its simplicity, its complexity means that truly “solving” some games – the strategy kind, and the social kind – is impossible.  Maybe it’s my personality that is always searching for puzzles to fiddle with that have no final solutions, but I really enjoy exploring the space that games create.  It’s like a little bubble world that often gives insight into the minds and behaviors of the players, the designer and even the greater world around us when the game is a model for something about the real world.

It’s pretty remarkable, really, when you think about it.

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Risk/Reward and Interaction

I was pondering two separate games, or ways to play games – Concentration (or Memory), and Winston Draft – and saw a common thread of interest to comment on.  In Concentration, each player takes turns trying to find a match on the board of scrambled tiles.  In Winston Draft, one player has the option to take a pile of cards for their deck or pass, but if they pass, another mystery card is added to that pile for the other player to look at / potentially choose.  In both styles of game, the player has to measure the risk of allowing their opponent additional benefit versus the reward of doing something awesome (matching/getting better cards).

One of the dangerous areas of game design that I realized after playing Dominion is that the amount and nature of interactivity in a multiplayer game has a huge effect on the enjoyment of the players.  When there is very little interaction, the game feels like a shared Solitaire experience and you don’t have any social benefit from playing together.  On the flip side, when there’s a ton of interactivity – like people attacking each other all the time in Small World, for example – players can get upset and frustrated because they are unable to execute their strategy and/or have fun that way.

I really like the way this interaction conundrum is solved in the risk/reward scenario outlined above.  Rather than pit players against each other, make it so that both (or all) players actions contribute toward a “pool” of resources in such a way that each player can ignore the benefit being given to the other if they desire, or they can factor it into their strategy (the less I give to others, the better off I am myself).

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As I wrap up game design month, there are still a lot of observations I want to write about.  (Next month’s theme is pretty strict, so I won’t be deviating [probably] from it much.)  One thing I keep noticing about decisions to make in game design is (a) how many spectrums (axes) on which you can measure the “success” of your game there are, and (b) the two polar “opposites” on those spectra, and how they are both super important.

Some spectra of game design:

  • Flavor vs. Mechanics (“gameiness”)
  • Solitary Play vs. Group Play (“communityness”)
  • Short Games vs.Long Games / Light Games vs. Involved Games (“depth of involvement”)
  • Highly Variant vs. Highly Skill-Based

In a way, a lot of these are the “enfranchisement” spectrum – on one end are players who just pick up your game and play it once, or infrequently, and on the other side are people who play it all the time, talk about it all the time, etc.  The lighter you are on this spectrum, the more accessible your game will be and the wider your potential audience.  The heavier you are on this spectrum, the more depth of gameplay that might represent, and/or the more dedicated your community will be to supporting your game.

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Playing Ball and Expectation

I saw a few really interesting behaviors at the company-sponsored outing to today’s Mariners game. They were illustrative of sone neat crowd-participation effects.

The first situation was with the big screen camera. Lots of people in the stadium are holding signs and making signals at the (supposed) cameras watching them. The interesting part comes when people realize the camera is looking at them, since if they are paying attention, they’ll be able to see themselves on the big screen. The moment of realization comes with huge excitement, of course, but also a bit of regret at not noticing earlier, because subconsciously they hadn’t really been expecting it.

The crowd in front of me, in the section to the left started a wave – where everyone in succession throws up their hands. As they wave rolled up toward the back of the section, some people in my section also did the wave. The next section over from us – to my right – thought that meant the wave was propagating over toward them. So it did! The crowd itself refracted the wave, because the outer crowd saw it, and expected it to propagate to them.

Finally, there was a silly audience participation game where three Mariners hats up on the screen performed the shell game with one baseball. Ryan and I carefully followed it until the three big numerals – 1, 2, 3 – went up on the screen. We stopped paying attention, shouting out the answer (#2, of course) and then the hats started moving again! Ryan thought it was a brilliant piece of misdirection on the part of the game designer, but I will admit I was frustrated when the game bucked my expectations.

Player expectation can be such a huge part of game (or any experience) design. Observing this audience gave me a bit more respect for the scope and impact of that expectation on the quality of the game at hand.

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Cool Game Mechanics

I wanted to jot these down because a lot of them have been running through my head!  I don’t know if I’ll incorporate them into a game one day, but I thought they were sort of neat.

  • One player bids an amount for an in-game item and the other three vote on it.  Maybe modify the incentives so that unanimous voting is special?
  • Game turns that are exactly correlated to positions on a game board – that is, kind of like that level in Braid where your position on the screen between A and B determined where in the timeline you were between A and B.  So you could modify your previous moves based on what you see other people doing.
  • A game where you can choose an action each turn, but something special happens if N players in a row choose specific actions (like A-A-A-A or A-B-C-D)
  • You build rooms onto other people’s rooms – building the board as you go, getting a benefit from other people’s stuff.  Like Jenga or Scrabble.
  • You are a character in the game, and as you perform actions you “level up”.  Each level gives you new actions, but you can combine a bunch of lower-level actions to trade in for one bigger action (kind of a limited market system).
  • You can add a “style” or “tone” to your actions verbally (recording what you say) – when you say one, it gives a particular kind of bonus to the action you are taking right then, but at the end of the game, the progression of styles/tones matter.

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Weighing Sources

Although I am filing this one under game design (it does apply, and it’s a theme!), I think the lesson applies to any endeavor where data is collected – you need to account for how much the data is worth by source, especially in context. For example, if I am playtesting a game product, my personal game biases will affect my feedback and my differential from the intended audience de-weights my feedback on resonance or feel, but not on mechanics (because I may understand game design better than the average intended audience member, for example).

I divide this into two camps: expert data and user data.  When you ask a web developer to use your site, you are usually looking for a professional opinion.  That web developer is probably a person who also browses the web in his or her spare time, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily want the feedback a “normal browsing person” would give.  In games, there are a lot of behaviors that can be predicted by good game designers and therefore they are great resources when seeking information about what to change.  I think of expert data as rolling up over time, giving you a better and better picture of an ideal design.

User data is the more prevalent type when doing studies, because anyone who can be measured is generally speaking a user.  I find it very important to weigh data in this category based on the “match” of the user in question to the “ideal audience member”.  We do this sort of implicit weighting a lot when we have arguments about game design at work, because Person #1 says they had a bad experience trying a new game component, and Person #2 mentions that Person #1 is “not that kind of player” and so their opinion isn’t really the “common person” opinion.  I think of user data as constantly shifting the game design around until you finally match some aspect of the game to some aspect of the audience.  Then you do everything you can to hold that part constant while you try again.

Data is so valuable, but misunderstanding data can be worse than none at all.

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Who Wins the Thread?

On the way into work today, I was pondering the difference between the Magic metagame and internet message boards.  At first, you might think like I did – what connection is there even between the two that they could be comparable?  And why is my brain considering the two of them right now? (In your case, it’s because you’re reading my blog, but in my case, I was curious about my apparent mental leap.)  By the end of the car ride, I had uncovered my own intuition: on internet discussions, one person often believes they have “won” some argument or thread or what have you, but everyone else is lessened due to their inflamatory / fallacious / content-light contributions.  But in a metagame like the one built around tournament Magic, when one player performs their best and wins an event, everyone is enriched because they get to see and learn from their skill and choices.

I think this difference in community success vs. individual success comes in the structure of the activities.  Since Magic and games of its ilk have one primary goal in something like a tournament setting – winning – all contribution toward that goal that’s public adds to the knowledge and awareness of all players involved.  This can be further evidenced by looking at other sub-communities that don’t value winning above everything, and seeing that they disparage or ignore some of the contribution of the competitive sub-community.  So, closer alignment to one goal axis means more ancillary benefits to a community from individual performance.

On the other hand, communication online is about one of the least-structured activities you can imagine.  But still, some individuals treat it as a game, and “play” against their fellow online denizens by arguing and attempting to “win.”  In this case, despite there being many community members who do not treat it as a game, they are drawn into a metagame-style activity by the actions of the individuals who make it into a game.  Since not everyone thinks they are playing a game, there’s no way they could all agree on the rules, much less the goals, and so there’s no contribution toward a single goal (or there often isn’t).  Lots of people who don’t want their communication activity to be a game become forced to interact with someone who *is* playing a game (of their own design, essentially) and that contributes to the generally negative community effect.

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